In its State of the Nation report out today the association says that the Government should urgently review the 30 hours childcare policy to ensure that early years settings are adequately funded to provide food.
- Millions of children in families too poor to afford a healthy diet
- Nursery Food: 30-hour Childcare - Eating in
Free healthy lunches should be provided for the most disadvantaged children as part of their entitlement, in line with the entitlement for free school meals.
The report highlights funding shortages for the 30 hours, describing how early years settings are making ends meet by charging extra for food or asking parents to bring in snacks and packed lunches.
The report says, ‘In failing to provide adequate funding for the 30 hours free childcare policy, the Government is heightening the risk that many children in the early years are failing to enjoy an adequate diet, entrenching the inequalities in diet and health that are present from birth.'
It says that when Universal Infant Free School Meals were introduced for children in Key Stage 1 it was on the premise that universal provision would help to alleviate inequalities in health and attainment, but 'these very inequalities are being needlessly accentuated by the poor state of food provision in early years settings.
'The Government must now commit to ensuring good food in the early years: hot meals, adequately funded, freshly prepared and available to those that need them most.'
The Soil Association said that the report showed that that while there has been some positive progress this year, there is still a long way to go until a balanced diet of fresh and minimally processed food is the norm for children in England.
Children’s food in the early years
The report also criticises the quality of food provided under the Government’s £40m a year School Fruit and Veg scheme, which provides a piece of fruit or veg each day for four- to six-year-olds.
It says that the produce is typically of low quality, with produce so lacking in flavour and texture that it is having the counter-productive effect of teaching children to actively dislike fruit and vegetables, instead of introducing a love for them.
While more than nine in ten teachers surveyed by Food for Life this year said the scheme had the potential to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, teachers were highly critical of the produce provided.
One said, ‘Pears are under-ripe and hard, carrots have been sweating in bags for days – the quality is awful. Generally, the produce is not as fresh as we would hope, and this means the children don’t eat it.’
Freedom of Information requests submitted to the Department of Health and Social Care reveal that a low proportion of the fruit and veg is British, with only 13 per cent of apples and 5 per cent of pears sourced from this country.
The report said that these long supply chains mean the produce is shipped around the world, and is often lacking in freshness, so there’s also a high level of waste. It calls on the Government to re-specify the scheme so that more of the produce is British, local and organic.
The report said that inequalities in diet and health are present from the start of life.
The Healthy Start Scheme provides parents on low-incomes with vouchers for milk, fruit and vegetables or infant formula, and coupons for vitamin supplements.
However, the report includes analysis from the First Steps Nutrition Trust, which found that take-up of the scheme has declined in recent years and the value of the voucher is out of step with rising food prices.
- The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world with 34 per cent of babies receiving any breast milk at six months, compared with 62 per cent in Sweden
- Children between 18 months and three consume on average more than double the amount of recommended sugar
- One in four children in England has tooth decay by the time they start school
- One in three children live in relative poverty
- More than one-third of the vegetables that children eat are processed, with 17 per cent of the veg in children’s diets coming from pizza and baked beans
- Fewer than one in ten children eat the five-a-day target for fruit and veg
- UK families consume the most ultra-processed food in Europe – 50.7 per cent of family food purchases compared to 14.2 per cent in France and 13.4 per cent in Italy
Rob Percival, Soil Association head of food policy, said, ‘The School Fruit and Veg Scheme is broken. Not only is the produce often lacking in freshness and of low quality, but data shows that the produce contains higher pesticide residues than equivalent produce found on supermarket shelves, including pesticides associated with a negative effect upon children’s cognitive development.
‘The Government must re-specify the scheme so that a higher proportion of the produce is British, local and organic, and is therefore fresher, of known provenance, containing lower pesticide residues, and is more enjoyable for children.’
- Invest in food in the early years. The Government should urgently review its 30 hours free childcare policy and ensure that early years settings are adequately funded to provide food. Free healthy lunches should be provided for the most disadvantaged children as part of their entitlement, in line with entitlement for free school meals.
- Safeguard the quality of school meals. The Government should take steps to avoid a new ‘race to the bottom’ in school meals by ringfencing Universal Infant Free School Meal budgets and giving clear guidance to procurers that quality should always be given greater weighting than cost.
- Put veg on the plate. Government should set the ambition that all children’s meals in cafés and restaurants and visitor attractions are served with two portions of veg.
- Make Brexit work for veg. Government should use post-Brexit farming policy to make fresh fruit and veg more accessible and affordable to children and families
A Department for Education said, ‘It is important that all children have access to healthy and nutritious meals and our school food standards set out how we expect schools to deliver this. We trust school leaders to make the best decisions in the interests of their pupils. It is right that they have flexibility around how they apply their funding.’
- Download the State of the Nation: Children’s Food in England, 2018 report from Food for Life here